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World Cup Watch: Who Is On The Bubble?

World Cup qualifying is about to hurtle down its home stretch, and for many countries, hearts are about to get broken this week.

Eighty-two matches will be played between Thursday, Oct. 5, and Tuesday, Oct. 10. When the dust settles, at least 21 nations will have qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The dreams of at least 19 others will have been dashed in the six-day span.

Already qualified (8): Russia (host), Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Belgium, South Korea, Saudi Arabia

Making travel reservations (6): Germany, France, Spain, England, Uruguay, Costa Rica

Feeling optimistic (10): Switzerland, Portugal, Poland, Italy, Serbia, Colombia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Egypt

On the bubble (12): Sweden, Northern Ireland, Croatia, Ukraine, Iceland, Turkey, Argentina, Peru, Chile, USA, Panama, Honduras

Fretting (21): Netherlands, Wales, Ireland, Denmark, Montenegro, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Scotland, Slovakia, Paraguay, Gabon, Zambia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Morocco, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde Islands, Uganda, Australia, Syria, New Zealand

Dreams fading (6): Cyprus, Bulgaria , Slovenia, Ecuador, Ghana, South Africa

All but eliminated (4): Albania, Austria, Trinidad and Tobago, Mali

EUROPE
World Cup berths: 13 (plus host)
Already qualified: Russia (host), Belgium

Making travel reservations (4):

Germany — A point away from Russia. If the Germans don’t get that point in Northern Ireland on Thursday, they’ll get it against Azerbaijan Sunday.

France — Les Blues somehow failed to beat Luxembourg at home on Matchday 8, meaning they’ll travel to Bulgaria on Saturday knowing dropped points would likely mean a drop in the Group A standings. Sweden sits just one point back, and plays Luxembourg the same day. But France has Belarus next Tuesday, while Sweden concludes group play in Amsterdam. Oh, and by the way, France is the most talented team in the world. It would be heavily favored in a playoff, should the campaign come to that.

Spain — A three-point lead in Group G and a plus-29 goal differential effectively have Spain one win away from Russia. It should get that win Friday at home against Albania.

England — The Three Lions are five points clear in Group F. Triumph over either Slovenia (Thursday) or Lithuania (Sunday) will be enough.

Feeling optimistic (5)

Switzerland and Portugal — All Group B roads lead to Lisbon. Provided both contenders win on Saturday – the Swiss host Hungary, Portugal plays at Andorra – the two will meet for a winner-goes-to-Russia showdown on Tuesday at the Estadio da Luz in the Portuguese capital. A draw would punch Switzerland’s ticket. Whichever nation doesn’t qualify directly will go to the playoffs.

Serbia — The Serbs opened up a four-point gap at the top of Group D with a 1-0 win in Ireland on Matchday 8. One more victory will be enough, but neither Austria (Friday) nor Georgia (Sunday) will be a pushover. Even if disaster strikes, though, the Serbs are guaranteed at least a second-place finish.

Poland — Poland can clinch with four points from its last two games – at Armenia (Thursday), vs. Montenegro (Sunday). Anything less would open the door for either Montenegro or Denmark, both of whom lay in wait three points back, and with superior goal differentials.

Italy — Barring a Spain collapse, Italy is heading to the playoffs from Group H. And at No. 17 in the FIFA Rankings, the Italians will almost certainly be seeded for those playoffs.

On the bubble (6)

Sweden — Sweden’s range of possible outcomes is expansive. It could qualify directly with two wins and a France slip-up. It could also be eliminated with a slip-up of its own against Luxembourg (Saturday) and a loss to the Dutch (Tuesday). But working in the Swedes’ favor is goal differential. Theirs is plus-11. Holland’s is plus-5. So if Sweden were to beat Luxembourg 3-0 and the Dutch were to win 1-0 in Belarus on Matchday 9, the Dutch would have to beat Sweden by four goals on Matchday 10. Anything less would probably send the Swedes to the playoffs.

Northern Ireland — Five victories and five clean sheets on the trot have Northern Ireland all but assured of a playoff place, and within touching distance of Germany. But a win over the Germans on Thursday would only mean something if Die Mannschaft went on to lose to Azerbaijan on Sunday as well. So the Northern Irish can probably start gearing up for two massive games in November.

Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey — Group I was a mess heading into Matchday 7. It was a mess going into Matchday 8. And – you’re not going to believe this – it’s still a mess heading into Matchday 9! So we’ll save the in-depth breakdown for the next edition of Bubble Watch, slated for Saturday afternoon. But here’s what you need to know for now …

Croatia and Iceland lead the group on 16 points. Ukraine and Turkey are on 14. Each of the four has one match against either Finland or Kosovo remaining, and one against a fellow contender. Turkey hosts Iceland on Thursday. Ukraine hosts Croatia on Sunday. So in all likelihood, this will come down to the final matchday.

Fretting (9)

Netherlands — The Dutch not only have to win both of their matches – at Belarus (Saturday), vs. Sweden (Tuesday) – just to stay alive. They probably have to make up six goals on Sweden in the process. The three late goals conceded to France in a 4-0 defeat on Matchday 7 could prove costly.

Wales and Ireland — With Serbia four points clear in Group D, the Welsh and Irish are likely battling for a playoff place. And they should get to ride into battle opposite each other on Monday in Cardiff. If both take care of business on Friday – Wales at Georgia, Ireland vs. Moldova – Ireland would need to pilfer all three points in Wales on Matchday 10.

Montenegro and Denmark — We’re all about wacky tiebreaker scenarios here at World Cup Bubble Watch, so how about this one: Montenegro and Denmark are almost perfectly level in Group E. Each has 16 points. Each has played eight, won five, drawn one, lost two. Each has scored 18 goals and conceded seven. So what’s standing in the way of lots-drawing?

First of all, Montenegro’s 1-0 win over Denmark on Matchday 3. But let’s say the Danes get revenge with a 1-0 victory on Thursday. Let’s then say they lose to Romania 1-0 on Sunday, while Montenegro beats Poland 1-0. The two countries would be deadlocked on each of the first six tiebreaking criteria. The seventh is discipline: One point for a yellow card, two for a second yellow, four for a straight red, and the team with fewer points goes through.

So where do Montenegro and Denmark stand here? One point apart! The Danes have picked up nine yellows. The Montenegrins have picked up 10. Neither team has been shown a red. So if Denmark earned one more yellow than Montenegro over the two matches … LOTS!

Scotland and Slovakia — These two square off at Hampden Park on Thursday. With Slovenia (14 points, tied with Scotland, one behind Slovakia) playing at Wembley the same day, the winner in Glasgow should be in the driver’s seat for second place. But Scotland travels to Slovenia on Sunday, while Slovakia hosts Malta. So behind England, Group F is still a crapshoot.

Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina — Bosnia hosts already-qualified Belgium in Sarajevo on Saturday. Anything less than a win puts Greece – with matches against Cyprus and Gibraltar remaining – in the driver’s seat for a playoff place.

But this is a good place for a note that not only pertains to Greece and Bosnia, but also to Scotland, Slovenia and Slovakia, to Wales and Ireland, to Montenegro and Denmark, and even to Sweden and Holland: Not every runner-up has a playoff place reserved for it. Only eight of the nine do. The second-placed side with the lowest point total, excluding games against last-place teams , is excluded and eliminated. Even if Greece jumps Bosnia in Group H, it could end up being the odd one out.

SOUTH AMERICA
World Cup berths:
4.5
Structure: One group of 10. Top four qualify directly. Fifth goes to intercontinental playoff vs. Oceania (New Zealand).
Status: 16 of 18 games have been played. Matchday 17 on Thursday, Matchday 18 on Tuesday. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures

Already qualified: Brazil

Making travel reservations – Uruguay
Uruguay is one win away from Russia, and its final two fixtures are against the two worst teams in South America, Venezuela (Thursday) and Bolivia (Tuesday). It would take a disaster to ruin plans for next summer.

Feeling optimistic – Colombia
The Colombians are virtually one win away, but their remaining fixtures are less kind. A home match vs. desperate Paraguay on Thursday is far from a gimme. A Tuesday trip to red-hot Peru is downright tough. If the carnage of Matchdays 15 and 16 carries over to 17 and 18, Colombia might be able to sneak into the top four without another win. But it’d be better off not leaving that to chance.

On the bubble (3)

Peru and Argentina — Playoffs excluded, there won’t be a more momentous 2018 World Cup qualifier than the Argentina-Peru clash at La Bombonera on Thursday. The two sides are tied on 24 points for the final direct qualification spot, with Chile lurking one point behind. The Argentines are favored, and the prospect of the 2014 World Cup runners-up missing out on the 2018 edition altogether remains almost unthinkable. But with Peru having won its last three and Argentina having failed to win its last three, Leo Messi and Co. are in a perilous position.

Both Peru and Argentina will have work to do beyond Thursday, regardless of the result in Buenos Aires, and both are in for difficult final exams. Peru hosts Colombia; Argentina travels to Ecuador. But Thursday will be pivotal.

Chile — Worry-ometer readings have reached decade highs in Santiago. All it takes to restore order is one win, and the Chileans get a golden opportunity at home against fading Ecuador on Thursday. But if they can’t pick up three points there, Brazil – and potentially the last gasp for a golden generation – awaits on Tuesday.

Fretting (1)

Paraguay — In seventh and three points below the cut line, Paraguay needs at least a draw at Colombia on Thursday, and surely will need a victory on Tuesday at Venezuela. But even if it can get both, its minus-6 goal differential could stand in between it and Russia 2018.

Dreams fading (1): Ecuador

CONCACAF
World Cup berths:
3.5
Structure (current round only): One group of six. Top three qualify directly. Fourth goes to intercontinental playoff vs. Asia.

Already qualified: Mexico

Making travel reservations – Costa Rica
The Ticos need a lone point over their final two matches to officially qualify. Their flights are booked, and hotel agents are on the line as you read this.

On the bubble (3)

Panama, USA and Honduras — The U.S. is still in the best shape of the three teams, largely due to remaining fixtures. Panama is a close second. Honduras is a close third. Still all to play for.

Still alive, but only technically (1): Trinidad and Tobago

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